OLD TOWN — Citing concerns Monday night that Superintendent Owen Maurais might not be accurately reflecting their views on tuition in Augusta, some members of the City Council apparently decided to take the bull by the horns.
Against the recommendation of Chairman Robert Fiske, a group of councilors led by Councilor Al Duplessis called for a workshop on the tuition issue, a source of controversy and confusion here for nearly two years.
The council workshop was not scheduled Monday night, but is expected to be held within the next few weeks.
City councilors and school officials are divided over whether a tuition problem exists.
At issue is whether Old Town taxpayers are subsidizing the education of nonresident students and, if so, to what extent. City officials also are grappling with what role they should play in getting the state to address any inequities in the law that sets tuition rates.
The issue is being watched closely in Old Town and in the numerous outlying towns that pay tuition to Old Town. Tuition students constitute more than half of Old Town High School’s enrollment of 658 students, according to Maurais.
The purpose of the tuition workshop would be to reach a consensus on what the problems are and how they might be solved — something the community has been unable to do despite six written reports and countless hours of debate.
Problems previously identified here have been blamed on flaws with the state law that determines the maximum fees schools may charge for educating nonresident children. The law does not allow host schools to include such costs as debt for construction, transportation and special education, among other things, and is based on 2-year-old costs.
“I think we need to present a unified front here and let [Superintendent Maurais] know how we feel,” said Duplessis.
Duplessis said that once the council has determined its position on tuition, it would ask Maurais to relay that position to the Department of Education’s seven-member Tuition Advisory Study Group. Maurais is a member of the panel.
“I don’t think Owen’s going down there with a strong conviction that we have a problem,” said Councilor Paul Boucher. Boucher said he was not convinced that the superintendent and city councilors were on the same wavelength when it came to tuition.
Fiske, however, said the council did in fact have a stance. “The council’s position is that we’re trying to get more money from the state for tuition students,” he said.
The decision to schedule a workshop came after Maurais and school board Chairman James Dill left the meeting. Maurais attended the council meeting to provide an update on the work being done by the study group.
When contacted Tuesday morning, Maurais was surprised about the plan to have a workshop. It was his understanding that the council’s discussion about tuition would be limited to his update.
The panel was appointed last fall to review the methods now used to determine tuition reimbursement rates and to suggest options for improvements. Maurais said that the group expects to issue its report to the commissioner of education by late January or early February.
The tuition issue was raised later in the meeting by Jennie Cook-Coghill, the former city councilor who first raised tuition concerns in a 1996 independent report to the City Council.
Cook-Coghill criticized Chairman Fiske Monday night for not having opened the earlier discussion to questions from the public while Maurais was still on hand to answer them.
“I have a real concern and I don’t have a clear idea of what Owen’s position is,” Cook-Coghill said, adding that the superintendent’s take on the tuition problem came across as “fuzzy” to her.
“The problem we have in Old Town is much greater than I can show on paper,” Cook-Coghill said. ” … I really believe that the City Council needs to take a firmer grasp on this issue.”
Resident Don Ross also wished he could have asked a question or two.
“I’m a little bit confused here,” said Ross. He said that a year ago an independent study by education consultant John Skehan concluded that the School Department was actually making a profit from tuition students. Cook-Coghill has estimated shortfalls amounting to as much as $500,000.
“If the city is losing money that concerns me because I don’t think that you as the council or the school board have the moral right to do that [allow the losses to continue],” Ross said.
If one thing came across clearly Monday night it was that the city is in no hurry to close its doors to tuition students.
“It is not under consideration. It is not under consideration now, it is not a thought for the future,” Fiske said. No councilors disagreed.